Guest Blog: Kaan Terzioglu, CEO of Turkcell

A GSMA Ambassador, Kaan Terzioglu, CEO of Turkcell, recently shared the personal story behind his vision of leadership. A commitment to helping to empower refugees now living in Turkey and the opportunities he sees for the mobile industry to develop solutions on a large scale are critical to this vision.

I believe everyone in some way is affected by migration. My first awareness of this complex issue happened when I was just a little boy. On the wall of my very old wooden childhood home, on the Princes’ Islands of Turkey, hung an oil painting. The woman portrayed looked different to anyone else in my family and I remember asking my grandfather: Who is this person? How am I related? It was then that I found out that my ancestors were migrants as well.

What followed next was a series of conversations about how my father came to live in Turkey.

After World War I there was a population exchange – a word in Turkish and Arabic called Mübâdele, which translated into English means “barter”. This is the first time I heard this word and the first time I learnt that my father had been one of these “bartered” persons. I remember feeling sad when I heard this: How can you barter people? I think this really made me understand the value of human life.

For many years, Turkey has hosted refugees and migrants. These people were nurses, doctors, they were educated, and I think Turkey has significantly benefitted from them coming to live here. It has been refreshing and rewarding to have people coming from a different culture and they have contributed and integrated very well into Turkish society. And of course, Turkey continues to host millions of refugees today, refugees who are escaping from terror.

There’s another thing that had a huge impact on me as a child. I remember that the island on which I lived was a place where lots of minorities lived as well, and this has led me to believe that societies need to be multi-cultured and rich in terms of their diversity. I truly believe that people – or citizens – are like customers to a company: we should try to make more rather than less customers. I think that’s maybe due to the basic core values I have. You have to treat people well, so that they will try to commit to you.

So, from a company perspective, when we see these underprivileged groups in society – refugees, the disabled, the very poor, those who need social help, people who have special needs, these groups are perfect areas where we can innovate because nobody cares about them, either because they are not seen as a money source or because they are small in number. However, they have huge potential.

Of course, to be a leader you need to be a bit of a pioneer. Once you have your financial freedom that becomes a big advantage. Today I have the luxury of being able to use the means, the ingredients I know, in the best way that I can. The potential for us (operators) is to be relevant to society, to do something good for society and ultimately to grow our business. And this is what you call the triple bottom line.


For Turkcell, we have a natural prioritisation: I always believe that everything we do is for the benefit of people and we have on our hands now a huge issue – the refugee crisis. For example, we have a small foundation in Turkey providing psychological) therapies for kids who were suffering serious trauma. And there is also a group of young academics who are trying to cultivate socially responsible leaders who we help and sponsor in certain activities. Another area of focus for me is helping those with disabilities – the visually impaired, the hearing impaired. I have asked my team to work on a technology where you speak into your smartphone and it translates to sign language. The technology is not impossible to create – but imagine the impact it could make for some communities in improving lives.

It’s important to have alliances – with government, funding partners and others organizations. Collectively, we have a responsibility to think about creating the necessary platforms to reach and connect the poor and underserved. Turkcell has recently deployed 4.5G in 2000 villages that have less than 500 people. I am pushing to find ways of giving them tablets. But we have to also offer capabilities in usable formats. It’s not enough to have an app for refugees if they cannot access it because they don’t have a mobile internet connection.

Innovation and empowerment
Giving refugees access to mobile technology is a way of empowering them. Turkcell is launching a prepaid card, linked to your phone, pre-loaded with cash from retail outlets. You can also send money to refugees and I think we should involve food organisations in this process because I know they are also looking for solutions to respond to the challenges of distributing money and coupon or vouchers. This is a perfect platform.

The mobile industry is such a rich pool for innovative solutions. Imagine if you were able to bring together the tech sectors of all the countries that are impacted by the refugee crisis, because this is not about competition. Mobile operators are in a unique position to deliver the technology, and could begin with taking formal registration to a digital level. I think that’s the starting point for helping refugees: how can you help a person without knowing who he is and what family he has? It would also be interesting if we could create a micro-funding mechanism for refugees. In Turkey the banks are only interested in the few who can enjoy banking services, which is why I’m keen to enter into this payment services business. To create solutions utilising our technologies.

If I may finish this by going back to the oil painting – a very small final story. One day I turn and I see a lady who is the replica of the woman in the oil painting – and I married her. Yes, absolutely. I have come full circle.


Turkcell WhizKids: Turkcell supports learning centers for gifted children by equipping them with state-of-the-art technology, laptops and smartphones.